Category Archives: Thriller

Who am I this time: Buster’s Mal Heart ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 7, 2017)

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My favorite bit of dialog from the 1965 film A Thousand Clowns goes thus:

Murray: Nick, in a moment you are going to see a horrible thing.

Nick: What’s that?

Murray: People going to work.

Yes, it is a horrible thing. Drudgery, that is. And unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, work, sleep, eat, reproduce, die is pretty much the plan. Okay, that came off sounding a little grimmer than I intended. Let’s say it’s the human condition. Lives of quiet desperation, and all that entails. Oh, dear. That doesn’t help either, does it?

I’m sure most wage slaves, if asked, still dream of flouting convention (like Murray) and dropping out of the rat race altogether. But it’s usually academic; pragmatism dictates that it’s best to sigh wistfully and leave the daydreaming to Walter Mitty. Just accept your lot, enjoy your 2 or 3 weeks a year of vacation time and remain chained to that desk.

Besides, an idle mind is the devil’s playground, right?

You could say that writer-director Sarah Adina Smith’s enigmatic thriller Buster’s Mal Heart takes place in the devil’s playground of an idle mind. Or does it? We’re fairly sure we know “who” the protagonist is. Or do we? You see, my dilemma here is that this is one of those films that is very difficult to synopsize at any length without risking spoilers.

I can tell you this much: Rami Malek (star of USA’s Mr. Robot) plays the eponymous character. Buster is one of those wage slaves I was talking about, holding down the midnight shift as a hotel concierge. He appears sleep-deprived, but it’s a living. Besides, he has his loving wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and toddler daughter to take care of. He seems “happy” enough with his life…in the same way a monkey in a cage seems “happy”, as long as he has a tire to play with and a supply of bananas. But Buster has his dreams, too.

Or does he? Because that’s only one “version” of Buster. I could tell you more, but…

Suffice it to say that what ensues is sort of a hybrid of The Shining and Lost Highway, with a dash of Fight Club and a smidgen of Dark City (i.e., file under ‘mind fuck’). This is the sophomore effort from Smith; and while her film is (obviously) not 100% original in conception, it is impressively stylish and atmospheric in execution. Malek and Sheil give good performances, with a quirky supporting turn by DJ Qualls as ‘The Last Free Man’ (don’t ask, don’t tell). If you’re in a mood to expect the unexpected, give this one a peek.

He was a human being: R.I.P. John Hurt

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 28, 2017)

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Man of 1,000 faces: 1940-2017

Maybe I should just trash this whole movie review gig and become a full-time obit writer. I can’t keep up. I realize that this is all part of life’s rich pageant…but Jesus H. Christ.

When Digby texted me last night about John Hurt, I hadn’t heard about it. After reeling for a moment or so, I mustered up all the eloquence that befits my métier and texted back:

“No! Fuckity-fuck.”

I know. Style under pressure, right? But seriously, there are no words. He was one of the good ones. He was a master thespian with an embarrassment of rich, immersive performances. He was one of those actors who was so damn good that “he” wasn’t there.

But his characters were. Wholly present. In the moment. Fully human. And unforgettable.

Here are five performances I will never forget:

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I, Claudius – While an opening line of “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus…” could portend more of a dull history lecture, rather than 11 hours of must-see-TV, the 1976 BBC series, adapted from Robert Graves’1934 historical novel about ancient Rome’s Julio-Claudian dynasty, was indeed the latter, holding viewers in thrall. While it is possible that at the time of its first run on Masterpiece Theater, my friends and I were more in thrall with the occasional teasing glimpses of semi-nudity than we were with, say, the beauty of Jac Pulman’s writing, the wonder of the performances and complexity of the narrative, over the years I have come to realize that I learned everything I needed to know about politics from watching (and re-watching) I, Claudius. With such a huge cast of heavyweight actors (many hailing from the Royal Shakespeare Company), it’s no small feat to steal the show…and John Hurt did just that, without blinking, as the mad emperor Caligula. This was my introduction to his work, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

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Midnight Express– If you can get through the first 15 minutes of this 1979 Best Picture nominee without experiencing even the slightest little anxiety attack, well then you are a much bigger man, or woman, than I. Which brings me to my next question: Have you ever been in a Turkish prison? Alan Parker’s almost unbearably intense drama is the next worst thing to actually being there. Oliver Stone won an Oscar for his adaptation of the screenplay from the eponymous book by Billy Hayes and William Hoffer, which recounted Hayes’ harrowing, real-life experience as an American student who got busted at the airport while attempting to smuggle some hash out of Turkey. The late Brad Davis is nothing short of astonishing as Billy Hayes, but interestingly it was John Hurt who caught the Academy’s eye; he earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination (and a Golden Globe win) for his portrayal of a long-time inmate who befriends Billy and becomes a father figure (or junkie uncle?). The film won a 2nd Oscar for Giorgio Moroder’s score.

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The Shout– For some unknown reason, Robert Graves and John Hurt go together like soup and sandwich. This 1978 sleeper was adapted from a Graves story by Michal Austin and its director, Jerzy Skolimowski. Hurt is excellent as a mild-mannered avant-garde musician who lives in a sleepy English hamlet with his wife (Susannah York). When an enigmatic vagabond (Alan Bates) blows into town, their quiet country life begins to go…elsewhere. This is a genre-defying film; somewhere between psychological thriller and culture clash drama. I’ll put it this way-if you like Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, this one is in your wheelhouse. Look for an uncharacteristically low-key Tim Curry in a supporting role.

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The Elephant Man -This 1980 David Lynch film (a Best Picture nominee) dramatizes the bizarre life of Joseph Merrick (Hurt), a 19th Century Englishman afflicted by a physical condition so hideously deforming and upsetting to people that when he entered adulthood, his sole option for survival was to “work” as a sideshow freak. However, when a compassionate surgeon named Frederick Treaves (Anthony Hopkins) entered his life, a whole new world opened up to him. While there is an inherent grotesqueness to much of the imagery, Lynch treats his subject as respectably and humanely as Dr. Treaves. Beautifully shot in black and white ( by DP Freddie Francis), Lynch’s film has a “steampunk” vibe. Hurt deservedly earned an Oscar nom for his performance, all the more impressive  when you consider how he conveys the intelligence and gentle soul of this man while encumbered by all that prosthetic. Amazing work from the entire cast, which includes Anne Bancroft, Freddie Jones and John Gielgud.

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The Hit– Directed by Stephen Frears and written by Peter Prince, this 1984 sleeper marked a comeback for Terence Stamp, who stars as Willie Parker, a London hood who has “grassed” on his mob cohorts in exchange for immunity. As he is led out of the courtroom following his damning testimony, he is treated to a gruff, spontaneous a cappella rendition of “We’ll Meet Again”. Willie relocates to Spain, where the other shoe finally drops “one sunny day”. Willie is abducted and delivered to a veteran hit man (Hurt) and his “apprentice” (Tim Roth). Willie accepts his situation with a Zen-like calm.

What exactly is going on in Willie’s head? That’s what drives most of the ensuing narrative. As they motor through the scenic Spanish countryside (toward France, where Willie’s former boss awaits for a “reunion”) the trio engages in mind games, taking the story to unexpected places. The dynamic becomes even more interesting when an additional hostage (Laura del Sol) enters the equation. Hurt is sheer perfection as his character’s icy detachment slowly unravels into blackly comic exasperation; if pressed, this is my favorite Hurt performance. While this is essentially a drama, and not a “funny ha-ha” romp, there are black comedy underpinnings revealed upon subsequent viewings. There’s a great score by flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, and Eric Clapton plays the opening theme.

Freudian nightmare: Tunnel ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2016)

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Herbie Cook: The old man sure looked bad. Did you see his face?

Charles Tatum [thoughtfully]: Yeah.

Herbie Cook: Like the faces of those folks you see outside a coal mine with maybe 84 men trapped inside.

Charles Tatum: One man’s better than 84. Didn’t they teach you that?

Herbie Cook: Teach me what?

Charles Tatum: Human interest. You pick up the paper. You read about 84 men, or 284, or a million men, like in a Chinese famine. You read it, but it doesn’t stay with you. One man’s different, you want to know all about him. That’s human interest.

-from Ace in the Hole (1951), screenplay by Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman.

There’s a lot of that “human interest” in Kim Seong-hun’s Tunnel, a (no pun intended) cracking good disaster thriller from South Korea. Now, I should make it clear that this is not a Hollywood-style disaster thriller, a la Roland Emmerich. That said, it does have thrills, and spectacle, but not at the expense of its humanity. This, combined with emphasis on characterization, makes it the antithesis of formulaic big-budget disaster flicks that are typically agog with CGI yet bereft of IQ.

Said to be “based on true events” (which puzzlingly stumps Mr. Google) the story centers on harried Everyman Jung-soo (Ha Jung-woo). Commuting home from his car salesman gig one fine sunny day, Jung-soo pulls into a service station. He asks for $30 worth of gas, but the elderly, hearing-impaired attendant gives him a nearly $100 fill-up instead. Jung-soo is a bit chagrined, but pays his bill and starts to pull away. The attendant runs after him and, by way of apology, insists that he accept two bottles of water. Jung-soo rolls his eyes, but acknowledges the gesture, tossing the bottles on the seat next to the boxed birthday cake he’s bringing home to his daughter.

And yes, it is the director’s intent that we make a special note of the bottled water, and the cake. As I am sure he wishes us to note the irony of the signage over the tunnel Jung-soo is headed for:

Hado Tunnel: Happy and Safe National Construction

As you may surmise (considering you know the premise of the film), Jung-soo’s passage through the Hado Tunnel on this particular fine sunny day will prove to be neither “happy”…nor “safe”.

To be honest, once the inevitable occurred (a harrowing sequence), I began to have doubts whether I could commit to the remaining 2 hours of the film; because I’m claustrophobic, and any story that involves physical entrapment freaks me out (as much as I admire Danny Boyle, I’ve yet to screw up the courage to sit through his 2010 thriller 127 Hours). And since that fear also precipitates white-knuckled parking in garages with low ceilings, driving across lower decks of double-decker bridges, and (wait for it) driving through tunnels…I was all set to just call it a day.

But thanks to Seong-hun’s substantive writing and direction and Jung-woo’s seriocomic performance (recalling Matt Damon’s turn in The Martian), I was absorbed enough by the story to allay my visceral concerns. And, akin to Wilder’s Ace in the Hole, Seong-hun uses the “big carnival” allusions of the mise-en-scene outside the tunnel to commentate on how members of the media and the political establishment share an alchemist’s knack for turning calamity into capital.

Shell-shocker: Disorder **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 27, 2016)

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In my 2009 review of the war drama Waltz With Bashir, I referred to an observation by the late great George Carlin, wherein he analyzes the etymology of the phrase “post-traumatic stress syndrome” and traces it back to WWI (when it was called “shell shock”). To which I appended:

A rose by any other name. Whether you want to call it ‘shell-shock’, ‘battle fatigue’, ‘operational exhaustion’ or ‘PTSD’, there’s one thing for certain: unless you are a complete sociopath and really DO love the smell of napalm in the morning…war will fuck you up.

True that. And while Carlin was referring to America’s war veterans through the decades, PTSD knows no borders. Consider Vincent (Matthias Schoenaerts) a French Special Forces Afghan War vet. He is the central character in Disorder, a new psychological thriller from director Alice Winocour (who also co-wrote with Jean-Stephane Bron, Robin Campillo, and Vincent Poymiro).

Insular, taciturn, and more than a little twitchy, Vincent can’t quite get a handle on things since getting back to the world. So much so, in fact, that he actually looks forward to being re-deployed for another tour of combat duty. Due to his condition, perhaps he can only find a sense of order in the chaos of war. His friend and fellow vet Denis (Paul Hami) is also his co-worker at a private security firm; Denis always keeps one concerned eye on him whenever they’re on an assignment.

Indeed, there does seem to be something a bit “off” about Vincent’s behavior one night when he and Denis are providing security for a large soiree taking place at the estate of a wealthy Lebanese businessman. Vincent seems more bent on running surveillance on the client’s activities; his interest is particularly piqued by an apparent heated exchange between the businessman and a couple of his shadier-looking guests, sequestered in a private office well out of earshot from the festivities.

When Vincent is tasked to provide security for the client’s wife (Diane Kruger) and young son while he is out of town on a business trip, Vincent’s inherent paranoia really comes to the fore (while wariness and diligence is something you look for in a bodyguard, any behavior bordering on delusional should raise a red flag). Another red flag: Vincent takes a sudden, uncharacteristic interest in the wife, but it’s hard to read whether his intentions are devious or protective in nature.

So is Vincent the possible threat to the safety and well-being of the clients’ wife and child? Or was he actually on to something the night of the party, with his suspicions that his client’s luxurious lifestyle hinges on potentially dangerous partnerships? Since we know going in that Vincent isn’t quite all there, due to his PTSD condition, the conundrum is all the more unnerving.

Unfortunately, after building up this considerable tension and intrigue (the first act hints at something brewing in the vein of Ridley Scott’s Someone To Watch Over Me), the director doesn’t seem to quite know what to do with it; the narrative fizzles, and by the crucial third act (a tepid knockoff of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs), the film hits the ground with a resounding thud.

Schoenaerts and Kruger are both fine actors (and easy on the eye), but they can only do so much with the uninspired script they’re working with. The film does sport some nice atmospheric work by cinematographer Georges Lechaptois and a unique (and appropriately unsettling) soundtrack by Mark Levy, but alas, it still can’t make up for a thriller that is curiously devoid of any…thrills.

Hitch by ten best

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 13, 2016)

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Today is Alfred Hitchcock’s 117th birthday (well, would have been). It’s a good enough excuse for me to share my picks for the top 10 from the Master’s catalogue of 50+ films:

The Lady Vanishes – This 1938 gem is my favorite Hitchcock film from his “British period”. A young Englishwoman (Margaret Lockwood) boards a train in the fictitious European country of Bandrika. She strikes up a friendly conversation with a kindly older woman seated next to her named Mrs. Froy, who invites her to tea in the dining car. The young woman takes a nap, and when she awakes, Mrs. Froy has strangely disappeared. Oddly, the other people in her compartment deny ever having seen anyone matching Mrs. Froy’s description. The mystery is afoot, with only one fellow passenger (Michael Redgrave) volunteering to help the young woman sort it out. Full of great twists and turns, and the Master keeps you guessing until the very end. The production design may be creaky, but it’s clever, witty and suspenseful, with delightful performances all around.

Lifeboat – This taut, suspenseful 1944 Hitchcock classic (adapted from a John Steinbeck story by screenwriter Jo Swerling) is essentially a chamber piece at sea, centering on a small group of passengers who survive the sinking of their vessel by a German U-boat, which also goes down in the skirmish. A floundering survivor who is later pulled aboard the already overcrowded lifeboat turns out to be a member of the U-boat crew, which profoundly shifts the dynamics of the group. A sharply observed microcosm of the human condition, with superb direction, great cinematography (by Glen MacWilliams), imaginative staging (especially considering the claustrophobic setting) and outstanding performances by the entire ensemble, which includes Tallulah Bankhead, William Bendix, Walter Slezak, John Hodiak, Mary Anderson,  Canada Lee, and Hume Cronyn.

The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog – Mrs. Bunting is a pleasant landlady, but we’re not so sure about her latest boarder. There’s a possibility he’s “The Avenger”, a brutal serial killer who is stalking London. Ivor Novello plays the gentleman in question, an intense, brooding fellow with a vaguely menacing demeanor. Is he or isn’t he? This suspense thriller has been remade umpteen times over the last eight decades, but for my money, none of them can touch this 1927 Hitchcock silent for atmosphere and mood. Novello later reprised the role of the mysterious lodger in Maurice Elvey’s 1932 version.

Marnie – I know it’s de rigueur to tout the (dizzyingly overpraised) Vertigo as Hitchcock’s best “psychological thriller”, but my vote goes to this  underappreciated 1964 entry, which I view as a slightly ahead-of-it’s-time pre-cursor to dark, psychosexual character studies along the lines of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park. Tippi Hedren plays the eponymous character, an oddly insular young woman who appears to suffer from kleptomania (which turns out to be the least of her “issues”). Sean Connery plays a well-to-do widower who hires Marnie to work for his company, despite his prior knowledge (by pure chance) of her tendency to steal from her employers. Okay, he’s not blind to the fact that she happens to be a knockout, but he also finds himself drawn to her as a kind of clinical study, due to her bizarre behavioral tics. His own behaviors begin to slip as he tries to maintain roles as Marnie’s employer, friend, lover, and armchair psychoanalyst all at once. One of Hitchcock’s most unusual entries, bolstered by Jay Presson Allen’s intelligent screenplay.

North by Northwest – I’m hard-pressed to name a more perfect blend of suspense, intrigue, romance, action, comedy and visual artifice than Hitchcock’s 1959 masterpiece. Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason and Martin Landau head a great cast in this outstanding “wrong man” thriller (a Hitchcock specialty). Almost every set piece in the film has become iconic (and emulated again and again by Hitchcock wannabes). Although I never tire of the exciting crop dusting sequence or the (literally) cliff-hanging chase up Mt. Rushmore, I’d have to say my hands down favorite is the dining car seduction scene. Armed solely with Ernest Lehman’s clever repartee and their acting chemistry, Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint engage in the most erotic sex scene ever filmed wherein the participants remain fully clothed (and keep hands where we can see them!). Frequent Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s score is one of his finest.

Notorious – It’s a tough call to name my “favorite” Hitchcock movie (it’s like being forced to pick your favorite child). I would narrow it down to three: North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, and this superb 1946 espionage thriller (no, I don’t have a man-crush on Cary Grant…not that there would be anything wrong with that). To be sure, Grant makes for a suave American agent, and Claude Rains a fabulous villain you love to hate, but it’s Ingrid Bergman who really, erm, holds my interest in this story of love, betrayal and international intrigue, set in exotic Rio. Bergman plays her character with a worldly cynicism and sexy vulnerability that to this day, few actors would be able to sell so well.

Psycho – Bad, bad Norman. Such a disappointment to his mother. “MOTHERRRR!!!” Poor, poor Janet Leigh. No sooner had she recovered from her bad motel experience in Touch of Evil than she found herself checking in to the Bates and having a late dinner in a dimly lit office, surrounded by Norman’s unsettling taxidermy collection. And this is only the warm up to what Alfred Hitchcock has in store for her later that evening. This brilliant thriller from the Master has spawned so many imitations, I long ago lost count. While tame by today’s standards, several key scenes still have the power to shock. Twitchy Tony Perkins sets the bar for future movie psycho killers. Anyone for a shower?

Strangers on a Train – There’s something that Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, Rene Clement’s Purple Noon (and Anthony Minghella’s 1999 remake, The Talented Mr. Ripley) all share in common with this 1951 Hitchcock entry (aside from all being memorable thrillers). They are all based on novels by the late Patricia Highsmith. If I had to choose the best of the aforementioned quartet, it would be Strangers on a Train. Robert Walker gives his finest performance as tortured, creepy stalker Bruno Antony, who “just happens” to bump into his sports idol, ex-tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) on a commuter train. For a “stranger”, Bruno has a lot of knowledge regarding Guy’s spiraling career; and most significantly, his acrimonious marriage. As for Bruno, well, he kind of hates his father. A lot. The sociopathic yet silver-tongued Bruno is soon regaling Guy with a hypothetical scenario demonstrating how simple it would be for two “strangers” with nearly identical “problems” to make those problems vanish…by swapping murders. The perfect crime! Of course, the louder you yell at your screen for Guy to get as far away from Bruno as possible, the more inexorably Bruno pulls him in. It’s full of great twists and turns, with one of Hitchcock’s most heart-pounding finales.

The 39 Steps – Many of the tropes that would come to be so identifiably “Hitchcockian” are fomenting in this 1935 entry: an icy blonde love interest, a meticulously constructed, edge-of-your-seat finale, and most notably, the “wrong man” scenario. Robert Donat stars as a Canadian tourist in London who is approached by a jittery woman after a music hall show. She begs refuge in his flat for the night, but won’t tell him why. Intrigued, he offers her his hospitality. He awakens the next morning, just in time to watch her collapse on the floor, with a knife in her back and a map in her hand. Before he knows it, he’s on the run from the police and embroiled with shady assassins, foreign spies and people who are not who they seem to be. Fate and circumstance throw him in with a reluctant female “accomplice” (Madeleine Carroll). A suspenseful, funny, and rapid-paced entertainment.

To Catch a Thief – This is one of the Hitchcock films that are more about the romance, scenery and clever repartee than the chills and thrills, but that makes it no less entertaining. Cary Grant is “retired” cat burglar John Robie, an American ex-pat and former Resistance fighter living on the French Riviera. A string of high-end jewel thefts (resembling his M.O.) put the police on Robie’s back and raise the ire of some of his old war buddies. As Robie tries to clear his name and find the real culprit, a love interest enters the picture to further complicate his situation (an achingly beautiful Grace Kelly). To be sure, it’s fairly lightweight Hitchcock, but holds up well to repeated viewings, thanks to the  chemistry between Grant and Kelly, intoxicating location filming (courtesy of Robert Burks’ colorful, Oscar-winning cinematography), and the delightful supporting performances (particularly Jessie Royce Landis, as Kelly’s mother). The witty, urbane screenplay is by John Michael Hayes (he also scripted Hitchcock’s Rear Window, The Trouble with Harry, and the director’s 1956 remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much).

SIFF 2016: The Night Stalker ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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Seattle filmmaker Megan Griffiths’ speculative chiller is based on serial killer Richard Ramirez. A lawyer (Bellamy Young) is hired to exonerate a Texas death row inmate by extracting a confession from California death row inmate Ramirez (Lou Diamond Phillips), whom the interested parties believe to be the real perp. One complication: When she was a teenager, the lawyer was unhealthily obsessed with the “Night Stalker” murders. A psychological cat-and-mouse game ensues (think Starling vs. Lecter in Silence of the Lambs). Philips delivers an intense, truly unnerving performance.

SIFF 2016: Alone **

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 14, 2016)

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This extremely weird Korean thriller (is that redundant?) from director Park Hong-min centers on a young photographer who inadvertently documents a woman’s rooftop murder while taking pictures from his balcony, setting off a chain of nightmarish events. What ensues is kind of like Groundhog Day meets Carnival of Souls…in Seoul. Good use of that city’s back alley labyrinths to create a claustrophobic mood (recalling Duvivier’s use of Algiers’ Casbah quarter locales in his 1937 crime drama Pepe le Moko). It gets less involving (and more gruesome) as it chugs along; genre fans may like it more.

Blu-ray reissue: Mulholland Drive ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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Mulholland Drive – The Criterion Collection Blu-ray

David Lynch’s nightmarish, yet mordantly droll twist on the Hollywood dream makes The Day of the Locust seem like an upbeat romp. Naomi Watts stars as a fresh-faced ingénue with high hopes who blows into Hollywood from Somewhere in Middle America to (wait for it) become a star. Those plans get, shall we say, put on hold…once she crosses paths with a voluptuous and mysterious amnesiac (Laura Harring). What ensues is the usual Lynch mindfuck, and if you buy the ticket, you better be ready to take the ride, because this is one of his more fun ones (or as close as one gets to having “fun” watching a Lynch film). This one grew on me; by the third (or was it fourth?) time I’d seen it I decided that it’s one of the iconoclastic director’s finest efforts. Criterion’s sparkling transfer brings new depth to the light and shadow of Peter Deming’s cinematography. Extras include new interviews with Deming, Lynch, Watts and Harring.

Blu-ray reissue: Miracle Mile ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 5, 2015)

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Miracle Mile – Kino Lorber Blu-ray

“Someone” (in this case, Kino Lorber) finally has seen fit to release a properly formatted HD edition of this 1988 sleeper (previously available only as MGM’s dismal “pan and scan” DVD). Depending on your worldview, this is either an “end of the world” film for romantics, or the perfect date movie for fatalists. Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham give winning performances as a musician and a waitress who Meet Cute at L.A.’s La Brea Tar Pits museum. But before they can hook up for their first date, Edwards stumbles onto a reliable tip that L.A. is about to get hosed…in a major way. The resulting “countdown” scenario is a genuine, edge-of-your seat nail-biter. In fact, this modestly budgeted 90-minute thriller offers more heart-pounding excitement (and more believable characters) than any bloated Hollywood disaster epic from the likes of a Michael Bay or a Roland Emmerich. Writer-director Steve De Jarnatt stopped doing feature films after this one (his only other credit is the guilty pleasure sci-fi adventure Cherry 2000, which also made its Blu-ray debut this year courtesy of Kino Lorber). Extras include a commentary track by film critic Walter Chaw, along with the director.

Stage fright: Number One Fan ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 24, 2015)

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Is it any wonder I reject you first?                                                                                  Fame, fame, fame, fame                                                                                                        Is it any wonder you are too cool to fool                                                                Fame (fame) 

-from “Fame”, by David Bowie

Back in the early 90s, I shared a train ride with David Bowie. It was the least likely celebrity sighting I’ve ever experienced. I was visiting my parents in upstate New York. During my extended stay, I took a side trip to NYC via Amtrak. On the return trip to Albany, I boarded the train at Grand Central. As I was settling in, I shot a textbook double take at the gentleman sitting across the aisle from me (I nearly gave myself whiplash). Could it be? No, that’s too weird. All by himself…no handlers, no entourage?

Why would David Bowie be taking a train to Albany? It had to be a look-alike. However, since it took several hours, I had ample time to (discreetly) confirm…yep, that’s him (the different colored eyes sealed the I.D.). Internally, I was freaking out (I’m a huge Bowie fan), but I always hold back and respect people’s privacy in such situations, because I dread coming off like the embarrassingly star-struck interview host Chris Farley used to play on SNL (“Do you remember when you were with the Beatles? That was awesome!”).

With the clarity of hindsight, why wouldn’t David Bowie take a train from NYC to Albany? There’s no law that says David Bowie can’t take a train to Albany, if he should so desire. For all I know, he was planning to shuffle off to Buffalo. And why would I assume a famous person never travels without handlers or an entourage? After all, he’s just another human being. He takes his pants off and puts them on the same way I do.

But “fame” is a funny thing; as Bowie himself once sang, it “makes a man take things over”. Among other things, it “puts you where things are hollow”, and if you’re not careful, “what you get is no tomorrow.” Apparently, in some cases, “to bind your time…it drives you to crime.” Which brings us to a twisty French thriller called Number One Fan (aka Elle l’adore), a rumination on fame, fandom, crime, punishment, and erm, wax jobs.

This is a film that is difficult to review without inadvertently divulging spoilers, so I will do my best not to. Sandrine Kimberlane stars as Muriel, a divorcee with two teenagers who works as a beautician. Muriel is attractive and outgoing, but a bubble off plum. She regales friends, family and co-workers with bizarrely concocted anecdotes (like the time she “recognized” one of her customers as Klaus Barbie’s daughter halfway through a treatment, and promptly sent her packing sans one waxed leg…under threat of revealing her identity to the other customers).

She is also a big fan of pop idol Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte). Her apartment is chockablock with Vincent’s CDs, collectibles, posters, and photos (one of them autographed “To Muriel, with love”). We see Muriel backstage after one of Vincent’s performances, hoping for a brief audience or an autograph. “Not tonight, Muriel,” his handler tells her, implying she’s a frequent lurker. You could say that she is…obsessed.

Imagine Muriel’s surprise when she answers her door late one night, and sees her idol standing there. While she’s still processing whether or not this is even really happening , he tells her he desperately needs her help. Vincent’s done a bad, bad, thing. It was an accident, but he needs a civilian to be his, you know, “cleaner”. I can say no more.

This is the directing debut for actress Jeanne Herry (who also co-wrote the screenplay, with Gaelle Mace) and it’s an impressive first feature, with excellent performances, effective atmosphere, and a unique piano score by Pascal Sangla. I detected a touch of Hitchcock  in the film’s central themes of obsession and duplicity (I believe it has been a rule since Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black that every French thriller is required to have a touch of Hitchcock). The film makers also make keen observations about the cult of celebrity. Most notably, there’s acknowledgment of the ever-odious duality of “justice” systems everywhere: the fact that there’s one for the rich, and one for the poor.

And here’s “number one fan” Chris Farley, in a classic SNL skit: